TIME psychology

5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Happier at Work

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Martin Barraud—Getty Images/Caiaimage

Nataly Kogan is the co-founder and CEO of Happier, a digital wellness company.

Research shows there are simple, concrete things you can do to feel more positive

Most people I meet assume that if anyone on the planet is happy at work, I am. Their assumption is easy to understand: I co-founded and run a company called Happier. I make a living by helping other people find more joy in their lives — which is one of the simplest ways to increase your own happiness. I must feel happy all the time!

But: I don’t. Being an entrepreneur is the absolute hardest thing I’ve done professionally. Every day is a psychological battle to not let the overwhelming stress, long hours, uncertainty and emotional rollercoaster of being in a start-up beat me down.

Which means that to be happier at work, I’ve had to become intentional about it. Like working out or eating healthy, being happier is something you have to work on. It’s a skill that takes practice. The good news is that a growing body of research shows there are simple, concrete things you can do that will help you feel more positive at work and they don’t require huge changes.

Start the day on a good note

How you feel in the morning affects how you feel at work for the rest of the day. In one study, researchers analyzed the moods and performance of customer service representatives. Those who were in a good mood in the morning were more productive during the day and reported having more positive interactions with customers.

Make it a point to do something in the morning that makes you feel good.

Take a few minutes to savor your morning coffee (or tea or hot chocolate or whatever you like to drink before the workday starts). This means actually pausing to enjoy it, focusing on what you feel as you drink it and taking a few minutes to do it — not gulping it down as you rush to your desk.

Get some fresh air. Every morning I go for a brisk walk. Rain or shine, I get out there before the day gets going. It’s probably one of the best habits that help me deal with daily work stress. And there’s research to back this up: just 20 minutes of fresh air has been found to boost happiness and feelings of well-being.

Make fewer decisions

One of the hardest aspects of my job as a CEO of a startup is making dozens of decisions daily, often with little or incomplete information.

Decision fatigue is real: each decision you make depletes your cognitive resources, making each future decision more difficult. This can quickly exhaust you and make you feel run down.

So how can you make fewer decisions?

Put some parts of your day on autopilot. For example, have the same thing for lunch or breakfast for a week, then change it up. You’ve just removed a bunch of decisions from your day. (Steve Jobs said that he wore the same outfit daily so that he wouldn’t spend energy deciding what to wear).

Take yourself out of a few decisions. Before weighing in on something at work, ask yourself if (1) it’s high impact and (2) you have a strong opinion about it. If you say no to both then this might be a great opportunity to not weigh in on a decision.

Help a colleague

Helping others makes you happier. And helping your colleagues makes you happier at work.

For example, one study found that people in their mid-30s who had earlier rated helping others at work as important reported feeling happier when asked three decades later. Helping your co-workers seems to create a virtuous cycle; according to another study, happier workers help their colleagues 33% more than those who aren’t happy.

You don’t have to do anything huge or heroic to help. Grab your colleague’s favorite beverage on your way back from getting coffee. Ask them if they need help on a project. Offer to do something simple, like type up notes after a meeting.

The tougher part is making this a regular part of your day instead of something you do only once in a while. One simple way to do this is to put a reminder on your calendar. If you think this is cheesy, give it a shot. You might be surprised at how effective this small habit can become. (And feel free to call it something that makes you smile, like “Time to be awesome, yo!”)

Make progress and acknowledge it

One of the best books about being happier at work I’ve read is called The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer. The authors studied motivation in the workplace and found that one of the most powerful causes of positive employee morale and happiness at work was feeling like you’re moving forward and making meaningful progress.

I can attest to this. Even on really bad days, if I can point to a few things that I accomplished, I feel better.

Try this: Before you start your workday, write down three small things you will get done. Do them, preferably before you open your email or take a phone call. Cross them off your list. At the end of the day, go back and look at your list and acknowledge that you made progress.

If you have a huge project ahead of you, it’s hard to feel like you’re making progress unless you break it up into smaller parts. On some days, those parts may have to be tiny. When I sat down to write this article, I only had time to write the title before having to run and take care of something family-related. The next day when I opened the document, instead of feeling bad for not having gotten more done, I felt great that I’d made a start and had a good title to work with.

End your workday with a simple gratitude pause

Here’s the bad news: Our brains are better at remembering the bad than the good. For example, one study found that the negative impact of setbacks at work was three times as powerful as the positive impact of making progress.

We’re conditioned by evolution to seek out what’s wrong and focus on it: this helps us protect ourselves from danger, which is good, but it makes it more difficult to be happier.

The good news is that you can train your brain to better remember the positive things. In other words, you can fight your natural negativity bias.

The simplest way to do this is to think of something you appreciate about your day and write it down. Many studies have shown that when people do this regularly, they report feeling more optimistic and better about their lives overall.

Since you’re likely busy, create a simple gratitude ritual at the end of your day that will be hard to skip. The best way to do this is to connect it to something you already do. For example, my ritual is thinking of something good that happened during the day before I turn my key in the ignition as I start my commute home.

If you share something positive about your day with someone else, even better. Research shows that discussing positive experiences with others enhances how good you feel about them and increases their after-effect.

Nataly Kogan is the co-founder and CEO of Happier, a digital wellness company that combines bite-sized courses with digital tools and a community to help people learn and practice simple ways to be happier daily.

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